Quo vadis, Quebec?

A shift in ‘values’ is causing division, writes Michael Higgins

There is no jurisdiction anywhere in North America that resembles the European reality when it comes to religion better than La Belle Province, Quebec. The French political doctrine of laïcité—the astringent separation of religion from the state (formally ushered in with a French legislative act in 1905)—enjoys very little currency in Anglophone North America.  I should say that most geographers still identify North America as Canada, the United States and Mexico, but in reality the term is usually restricted to the first two sovereignties.

The Americans have their constitutional separation of church and state yet remain the most ostensibly religious nation in the West.  Canadians, by contrast, are far more secular in their outlook but technically have no formal separation of church and state.

Deeply Catholic

Quebec is the singular exception.  A deeply Catholic part of Canada, after the successful conquest of New France by the British in the 18th Century the new rulers astutely allowed the annexed territory to retain its religion and its language.  In the process, and for centuries subsequently, the marriage of faith and language in Quebec assured Catholic hegemony.  Quebec was Catholic and would remain ever so.  The collusion of the powers of Church and state would guarantee it.

Until the 1960s that is, by which time the now iconic Quiet Revolution resulted in the evacuation of all clerical power in the corridors of office and influence.  The oppressive clericalism of the past created its own monster, which in turn devoured it.


A wide rejection of all Catholic values—the wise and the good along with the atrophied and oppressive—has resulted in a community at war with its identity and anxious over its future.  No longer secure in any kind of Catholic identity the linguistic heritage has risen to the ascendant, but at the same time as the nationalist sympathies are in critical decline.

Quo vadis, Quebec?

One ominous sign is the recent proposal by the ruling sovereigntist party, the Parti Québécois, that the government intends to enact a Charter of Quebec Values that includes a controversial clause banning the wearing of religious headwear “everywhere from daycares to hospitals”.  The premier, Pauline Marois, seeks to prohibit the wearing of all religious symbols in the public sector in light of recent struggles with the accommodation of religious minorities in the province.

Sikh turbans

For instance, the Quebec Soccer Federation banned Sikh turbans on soccer pitches only to have the ban successfully appealed after a national uproar. Similarly, cabinet minister Bernard Drainville condemned long-standing parking exemptions for Hasidic Jews during religious holidays in Montreal even though such an exemption has been the norm for decades.

To add fuel to the fire, the opposition parties have staked out their own platforms condemning the excess but not necessarily the principle. Françoise David, the head of Québec Solidare, wondered why the anticipated measures would allow a Muslim male teacher with a beard to teach but would censure his headscarf-wearing wife.

In addition, Francois Legault, leader of the Coalition Avenir Quebec, denounced the charter as too radical, signalling that parliamentary resistance would be considerable. The national parties are united in their distancing themselves from this incendiary development that can only further polarise Quebec society.

One of the sharpest critics of the charter is the internationally esteemed political philosopher and public intellectual Charles Taylor, the author of the magisterial A Secular Age and one of the most respected Catholics in the country. He was the co-chair of the Bouchard-Taylor Commission charged with the task by the government to make recommendations concerning religious accommodations in a rapidly changing Quebec.  Their mutual report was the subject of detailed national debate and it sought strenuously to advance a position that was respectful of both communal and individual rights.


Incensed with the charter, Taylor has publicly compared its religious restrictions to Russia’s recent restrictions on gays.  Taylor accuses the government of being Putinesque and makes the telling point that although Quebec institutions must remain neutral, provincial employees must be free to express their religious convictions:  “Hydro-Québec isn’t Hydro-Catholic, Hydro-Muslim, or Hydro-Atheist and its  employees are free  individuals; the reported proposals are absolutely draconian and will create severe obstacles to the integration of immigrants in Quebec.”


One of the many ironies swirling around this controversy is the exception the government will make for the large crucifix behind the Speaker’s Chair in the National Assembly in Québec City. Evidently that will stay; it speaks to the common heritage of the province; it’s the one symbol that can remain in the public square.  Rather schizophrenic.

But perhaps the most sage assessment of this latest of provincial debacles can be seen in the commentary of the fully bilingual national political correspondent Jeffrey Simpson of The Globe and Mail when he writes: “With this charter, Quebec will have moved from being almost completely Catholic in its public face to being militantly anti-religious.  Quebec’s new religion will be no religion. All in an attempt, organised on high, to define Quebec’s values.”

Quebeckers have swapped one form of clericalism for another and no good will come from it.